It seems that on at least a weekly basis some public figure says something regrettable, is publicly censured for their words, and issues an apology. Whether it is the sexist content of an after dinner speech, or an editorial piece which lapses into the old tropes of racism, it seems that people cannot help but put their foot in it, transgressing the few remaining moral boundaries that our society upholds and enforces. What is intriguing in all of this is not the fact of people saying offensive things (history is littered with such pronouncements), but the modern means of dealing with it: the issued apologies which are pinned to a Twitter feed, or fed to the press.
One such story in today’s news provides an excellent example. An individual by the name of Graffin Parke was asked to make an after dinner speech at Cooke Rugby Club in Belfast. Perhaps having forgotten that the past thirty years have elapsed, Mr Parke used this as an opportunity to air his saltiest anecdotes and most sexist one-liners. While the actual content of his speech has not been aired, the commendable reaction of Cooke Rugby Club in utterly denouncing his sentiments suggests that his words were highly inappropriate. Approached by the BBC, Mr Parke ‘apologised’ using words which must appear in some kind of manual for people who don’t really want to say sorry:
“The comments I made are not in any way a reflection of my true attitudes or beliefs.”
This is a slightly nuanced form of ‘sorry, not sorry’, an affirmation that the individual was in the room when mistakes were made, but that he or she cannot in any way claim ownership of them. This is the new way to apologise – be outrageous, speak malignantly and abusively, push the edges of gratuitousness, and then as the verbal bomb detonates deny that you really meant to plant it in the first place.
Such words are suggestive of a kind of dualism and are deeply postmodern in their assumptions. A man or woman can make every thinking individual within his audience squirm and fume, but ultimately when confronted can say that this is not really him or her, not authentically who they are, that their words are beautifully divorced from anything they value, think, or truly espouse. The questions then arise: what is this person’s attitude? what do they think? why did they say something diametrically opposed to their belief system? how did Mr Hyde make it into the room when Dr Jekyll is such a fine fellow deep down?
All of this would be laughable if its ubiquity weren’t so lamentable. It is not just misguided middle-aged men who indulge in this behaviour, in essence all of us do. We are excuse-making creatures, we externalise our words and actions, we deplore the symptoms while denying the cause, we will go to any lengths to make sure that we don’t actually own what we do or say, knowing all the while that to do anything else would show us who we are. We are snappy with those closest to us, we show impatience and selfish disregard for everyone else, and then we say that it was tiredness which made us do it (C.S. Lewis is surely right in saying that we never credit good sleep for our better behaviours); we indulge in appetites which destroy us and others and then attribute our weakness to some deeper need or absence. All of us board the train of self-justification, knowing that it is rumbling towards the cliff edge, but to disembark, to face ourselves, to own our behaviours would be painful beyond words.
For me the gospel of Jesus Christ is so helpful here. He tells us that it is ‘out of the overflow of the heart’ that ‘the mouth speaks’ (Matthew 12:34). Long before Freud formed his theories, Jesus blocked off our emergency exit, and demands that we see that our heart speaks whether we will it to or not, the corruption of who we are manifests itself, and nowhere more powerfully than in what we say. We will be held to account for our words, Jesus says, not just by the drooling mob on Twitter, but by Almighty God himself – what we say counts, and carries consequence far beyond our immediate discomfort at being called out. Those words are symptoms of the full anatomy of sin which we embody in our lives day by day – our words do show our attitudes and thoughts, they betray us and blab out our sinfulness in spite of our best attempts at moral finesse and respectability.
The gospel solution for this is deeply liberating too – repentant ownership, not just of our behaviour, or our demeanour, but of our sinful nature. The gospel liberates me to say that I am corrupt, that I am contorted and scheming and horribly compromised as a human being. The gospel allows me to say sorry, not just to the faceless crowd of our new speech-morality, but to the God whom I have offended. It allows me to say sorry securely because in Christ my sin has been dealt with and my forgiveness secured. This isn’t a luxury item owned only by those who come from a Christian background – Christ offers that opportunity to us all, to repent, to say this sin is mine and this sin is me, and to receive from him the transparently necessary forgiveness he died and rose to provide.
is pastor of Millisle Baptist Church in Co. Down. N. Ireland, and blogs at www.thinkingpastorally.com